Some Common Misconceptions of charter flights are that:
you must be a member of a larger group who is doing the chartering and
you had to purchase the ground package—hotels, meals, tours—to take advantage of the charter fare.
That is no longer the case. In 1987 the Civil Aeronautics Board opened charters to the public and permitted a great deal more flexibility and competitiveness than had previously existed. Now anyone can fly a public charter. You can make air-fare only arrangements, and need no longer adhere to the schedule of any group. You can fly charters into one city and return from somewhere else. You can even buy one-way tickets, known in charter-industry lingo as "half roundtrips."
The principal difference between chartered and scheduled flights is that with charters you deal directly not with airlines but with entities known as wholesale tour operators. Tour operators charter entire planes or segments of planes from airlines to fly specific routes at specific times. They set fares and sell tickets either through their own retail outlets, through travel agents (the most common form of distribution), or through discount dealerships.
Charter Advantages The main advantage of charter flights is price. Although fares fluctuate considerably between and within seasons, charters usually cost from $50-$200 less than the lowest round-trip excursion fare on a scheduled airline. Geared to day-by-day changes in travel patterns, charter fares run slightly lower on off-days and slightly higher on holiday weekends.
Larger tour operators with many flights to different places sell half round-trips (one-way tickets) that permit you to fly to one destination and return from another. Two half round-trips cost only slightly more than one "whole" round-trip. Other large operators even allow some flexibility for altering your return trip, although this privilege cannot be counted upon on every charter. Charters often provide the only nonstop or direct service overseas from interior cities.
Charter Drawbacks Along with the many pluses, charters also have serious drawbacks, some of which can be overcome by smart shopping, while others are subject to the luck of the draw.
Charters don't go everywhere. While many charter flights take off for Europe or Southeast Asia, few are available to countries whose governments have protectionist policies toward national or state-owned airlines. Consequently, few charters are available to the Far East.
Charters have limited and inflexible schedules. Tour operators typically arrange back-to-back flights on which planes fly into, for example Manila, on Saturday morning and depart on Saturday night. You can stay any number of weeks, but you cannot fly within the week or on any other day.
Charter passengers must pay for the charter flight weeks and possibly months in advance. Tour operators will sell seats until the last minute, but in practice the most desirable dates fill up early. Also, passengers who alter or cancel their travel plans are subject to substantial penalties.
Rights Of Passage Despite the drawbacks described above, charter passengers are not completely unprotected. If the tour operator cancels the trip ten days or more before the departure date, passengers must be notified in writing and receive a refund within fourteen days. Similarly, if a major change is made more than ten days before departure (i.e., an increase in the fare that exceeds 10 percent, change in the itinerary), passengers have seven days in which to cancel, and the operator has fourteen days in which to send a full refund. Tour operators can't raise fares within ten days of departure, but they are allowed to reschedule flight times by as much as forty-eight hours without penalty.
The Charter Experience In and of itself, the charter-flight experience has caused many an otherwise intrepid traveler to vow "never again."
Long lines. Whereas passengers on scheduled international flights are usually asked to check in an hour prior to departure, charter passengers generally must arrive three to four hours early. Most of the additional time is spent standing with luggage in lengthy understaffed check-in lines.
Crowded cabins. While some tour operators charter the regular aircraft of scheduled airlines (or, on occasion, buy space on scheduled flights), most flights take place on specially configured charter aircraft. The most comfortable charter planes are wide-body Boeing 757s, which usually have ten-across seating with a pitch (distance between rows) of thirty-two to thirty-four inches. Narrow-body 707s and DC-8s, first generation transatlantic jets now banished from some airports by anti-noise regulations, have six-across seating but less pitch (less legroom) than scheduled carriers.
The worst charter planes in the sky are certain specially configured DC-10s and L-1011s with ten-across narrow seats and a pitch of only thirty-one to thirty-two inches. When seating capacity on a DC-10 or L-1011 exceeds 370 seats, get ready for a tight squeeze.
Meager in-flight amenities. In-flight services-movies, food, drinks-are supplied by the tour operator. Since economy is the predominating principal, don't expect much.
Late departures. Charter flights are notoriously late, often by hours and not infrequently by days. Most charter airlines have a limited inventory of aircraft. As a result, if one plane is delayed by mechanical difficulty, you have to wait until it's fixed. Unless the flight is delayed by more than forty-eight hours, federal law mandates no form of compensation.
Safety. Charter airlines may adhere to less stringent safety procedures than do scheduled airlines. This situation was brought tragically to light in February 1996, when the crash of a chartered Boeing 757 off the coast of the Dominican Republic killed 176 German tourists and 13 crew members returning home to Frankfurt.